The weekly series “MN Original” on Twin Cities PBS (TPT) is many things. It’s a recognition and celebration of Minnesota artists living and working within a 45-mile radius of the Twin Cities. (There are six public television stations in Minnesota, and each produces its own programming.)
It’s a fluidly expanding, thoughtfully curated library of the arts at a particular time in Minnesota history. (Don’t we wish we had that for the 1920s? Or the 1960s?) So far, thousands of artists have been featured in more than 500 segments in more than 150 programs.
It’s a lively educational resource and a powerful PR tool for individual artists and our artsy state. Along with “Great Performances,” KLRU-TV Austin’s “Arts in Context,” WGBH Boston’s “Open Studio” and WNET New York’s “NYC-ARTS,” it’s one of the benchmark arts series in the PBS system.
And it’s a solid use of Legacy funds: diverse, meaty, far-reaching, lasting and accessible. Anyone with a computer, tablet or smartphone can view every segment of every episode through the series’ website or YouTube channel.
In 2015, Conservation Minnesota and Minnesota Citizens for the Arts recognized “MN Original” and TPT with a Legacy Partner Award. The series has won dozens of regional Emmys.
“MN Original” debuted on April 22, 2010, with an episode featuring photographer Alec Soth, metal sculptor Heather Doyle, plein-air painter Joe Pacquet and the band Twilight Hours. It begins its seventh broadcast season Sunday, Jan. 3, with novelist and recent Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James, sculptor James Brenner and the acoustic folk duo The Ericksons.
In between is a long and colorful parade of musicians, painters, potters, sculptors, dancers, performing artists, illustrators, actors, singers, playwrights, choreographers, composers, fashion designers, directors, videographers, poets, printmakers, novelists, filmmakers and on and on.
We’ve been watching from the start, and for us, “MN Original” has always been about the human stories. Who are these people? How do they make their art? Why? What are they trying to say? They are talented, passionate and driven. They are also members of our community, our neighbors. We can run into them at a coffee shop or grocery store or riding a bike down the street and it’s no big deal.
Because of the deep local connection and the warm, up-close-and-personal way in which “MN Original” is produced, art seems like a normal, natural part of everyday life. Down to earth, not out of reach. Something for everyone.
Gearing up for the new season, we spoke with Executive Producer Ashleigh Rowe about the series, its history, why it matters and how it’s changing.
MinnPost: How did it all begin?
Ashleigh Rowe: Dianne Steinbach, the former executive producer, and others worked tirelessly for many years when the Legacy Amendment was being developed. TPT always had this vision of an arts program, and creating programming around the arts is expensive in terms of gaining rights and production costs. So when Legacy funds became available and were granted to us, it was a dream come true.
MP: Is anyone else doing anything similar?
AR: There are arts programs around the country, so there are some similarities. What makes is unique is that we are funded by the state. Nobody has funding like we do to create local arts programming.
MP: What’s new this season?
AR: Our show has really evolved over the years with our storytelling and our visuals, and the way we technically can produce these pieces. Starting this season, we’re also focusing on telling some meaningful stories. We’re looking at ways we can extend and deepen our engagement with the community beyond telling stories about an artist’s process. What is the meaningful work artists are doing, and how can our own work be more meaningful?
I can give you an example. The Giving Voice Chorus is for caregivers and people living with Alzheimer’s. It started last year and is housed at MacPhail. It’s a choir of 80 folks who are finding meaning in their lives through music. That wouldn’t have been a typical story we covered in the past, but we’re finding meaning in telling it, and hopefully we can develop something that goes beyond the broadcast and online. We can maybe have an event with the chorus and a discussion that could lead to talking about living with Alzheimer’s.
Another example of something we might do is work with [Washburn High School director of acting] Crystal Spring, who runs a program called Blackbox Theatre, where kids explore social justice issues. Perhaps they might come to TPT to do a performance and have a discussion.
We’re developing a series of events that can leverage this new lovely space we have here at TPT. [The TPT building in downtown St. Paul recently underwent extensive renovations.] They won’t just be about showing clips or having screenings, but extending [the program] into discussions with key people in the community who could lend their ideas and extend the conversation. We want to bring the community into our space to share ideas, and be a place where people can come together.
It’s an incredible collision of ideas, because where do you take a series like this that we’ve had for a while and we know is so valuable? Where can it go? We have an opportunity to make “MN Original” more than just a jewel of a show and online content.
[Also new this season: a partnership between TPT and McNally Smith College of Music. Students are contributing original music to the series’ vast library of more than 4,000 songs by Minnesota musicians, from which the soundtrack for each episode is drawn.]
MP: Because “MN Original” uses public funding, do you have to prove your value?
AR: I don’t feel we have to prove our value, but we want to celebrate it. We know we’re making a difference.
We’re promoting the work of artists. We’re creating pieces of media that artists can use to promote themselves – to apply for grants, to get new work. We’re bringing the community together and creating places for conversations to start and people to make connections. We’re providing an entry point for people to become engaged in the arts.
[But] I always feel there’s much more we can do, and that’s always what is so gratifying. It never feels like we’ve done enough.
MP: How do you decide which artists to feature?
AR: A lot of it depends on who’s working on something when, and what their story is. We’re also looking for unique and wonderful characters.
[Anyone can suggest an artist to feature on the program. Go here to get started.]
MP: Do you ever worry about running out of artists?
AR: Honestly, I feel like we haven’t even scratched the surface. There are so many stories to tell, so many incredible artists to meet and work to examine.
I was talking with one of our producers, Amy Melin, who just filmed at Patrick’s Cabaret with Crystal Spring’s Blackbox group, and she was moved to tears. As I was this week, shooting with the Giving Voice Chorus. This work is so meaningful, and we’re so lucky to have the opportunity to promote the work of artists and bring the community together. It’s so rare to have this kind of work in television.
MP: Do you see “MN Original” continuing into the future?
AR: We’re absolutely committed to this series, and we’re funded through this biennium. In 2017 we’ll go before the Legislature again and hopefully have even more stories to tell about the impact of our work so that we are refunded.
The seventh season of “MN Original” premieres Sunday, Jan. 3. Episodes air Sundays at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on TPT 2, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on TPT LIFE and Mondays at 7 p.m. on TPT MN.
The new season of 13 episodes includes more than 50 stories about Minnesota artists working in all disciplines. Coming up, episodes will spotlight actor Tyler Michaels, Shapiro and Smith Dance, artist Peyton Scott Russell, Chinese calligrapher Weiming Lu and the Giving Voice Chorus. Each new episode is posted online on the Friday before it airs.